2021 NBA Draft: What is Cade Cunningham’s ceiling?

NBA Draft prospect Cade Cunningham (Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports)
NBA Draft prospect Cade Cunningham (Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports) /

Heading into the 2021 NBA Draft, we take a closer look at what Cade Cunningham’s ceiling could be. 

Cade Cunningham, the consensus No. 1 prospect in the 2021 NBA Draft, has everything you’d want from a basketball player. He’s wired to “make the right play,” but carried Oklahoma State to a top-15 ranking as the undisputed lead-dog.

He’s calculated and unassuming – often feeling his way out through games – yet a killer in crunch-time. He looks to empower his teammates and genuinely seems invested in their success. In a league trending towards skill-ball and positional versatility, the 6-foot-8 forward is tailor-made to have an impact right away. Simply put, Cunningham will not fail.

Now that we’ve established that, let’s examine Cade’s upside and project how his professional career will unfold:

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It’s about creating shots

Cunningham is going to create shots, lots of them. This past season he assisted on 20.2% of his teammates’ buckets while posting a 28.6% usage rate. Since 2009, the only other freshmen to do that AND lead their team to the NCAA tournament were Trae Young, R.J. Barrett, Collin Sexton (!), D’Angelo Russell, O.J. Mayo, and Jerryd Bayless. (His turnover rate was also the highest of that group).

Oklahoma State relied heavily on Cunningham’s wizardry out of the pick-and-roll. Despite usually being flanked by two, or even three non-shooters (guards like Avery Anderson and Isaac Likekele, plus a center), Cade was able to spin chicken you-know-what into chicken salad and keep the team afloat. Opponents threw the kitchen sink at him; it rarely fazed Cade – he has solutions for everything.

And while he’s generally a pass-first guy, Cade demonstrated that he’s more than capable of keeping the defense honest. Per Synergy, 15.2% of Cade’s opportunities were out of isolation, where he averaged a meaty figure of 1.056 points per possession. Pretty impressive stuff from a guy whose individual scoring was the main question heading into 2020-21.

What about the easy shots?

Notice something from these clips? The vast majority of Cunningham’s buckets are tough, with defenders right in his grill – not necessarily a sustainable diet for most mortals. As a result, Cade made just 46.1% of his two-pointers in 2020-21, far below what you’d expect from an elite prospect.

Yes, the aforementioned spacing played a role. He’ll absorb plenty of attention wherever he goes, but surely not this much in the pros. At the same time, Cade’s inefficiency from inside the arc shines a light on a few of his limitations – which may ultimately cap his future potential.

He’s not unathletic, but Cade doesn’t have the type of burst to consistently beat his matchup on the initial move. While he was able to make it work at the college level — thanks to an expert understanding of angles and body positioning (including a nasty rip-through series), and physicality — I’m unsure how this style will translate to the NBA. Generally speaking, players who rely on multiple spins and counter-moves are riskier propositions; you’d like to see more clean blow-bys out of Cade.

Call it the Evan Turner corollary. The same concerns apply to finishing around the basket. Due to his below-average vertical pop and elasticity, Cade often resorts to methods like this to elude defenders. Lots of the attempts are difficult, low percentage propositions – he had just one dunk post-January 1 (19 games).

Rim pressure is key. The type of player many believe Cunningham can become — one who can drive efficient offense as the primary option  — is reliant upon being un-guardable, no matter the coverage, defender, or situation. I worry about Cade’s ability to generate easy looks for himself.

A widely-used comparison for Cunningham has been Luka Doncic. Both are jumbo creators who make up for a lack of quick-twitch explosiveness with skill and guile. The difference to me: Both can create an advantage, but Luka is far better at maintaining that advantage. Why is that? 1) Doncic is an outlier, in every aspect, which is unfair to expect from Cunningham, and 2) Doncic is actually more athletic than we give him credit for.

So what if he’s not one of those go-to, heliocentric players?

That’s the great thing about Cade. Even the lesser, “left-tail” outcomes for his career are still highly impactful. Think similar to Khris Middleton or Jayson Tatum; both of whom had middling two-point shooting in college which carried on to the league. Tatum has already been a two-time All-Star and made an all-NBA team despite not having a league-average eFG% since his rookie year.

There are reasons to imagine he’ll be much more than that, too. Don’t overreact to the alarming (94 to 109) assist-to-turnover ratio; Cunningham is an outstanding passer with a brilliant understanding of the court. It’s not just about pick-and-roll reads, either. In those messy in-between/scramble situations where the game breaks down, Cade’s decision-making really stands out. As Fran Fraschilla would often remark, having better teammates only amplifies his strengths; and I can’t wait to see him get more chances with a tilted floor again.

And while Cunningham is an incredibly mature, polished basketball player, he still has plenty of room to grow. He needs to shore up his handle; many of his turnovers were the result of ball pressure or simply unforced miscues. In terms of passing, Cade would benefit greatly from adding more velocity to his weakside tosses – whether it be through lefty hook passes, those Luka-style overhead jump-passes, or something else that a schmuck like me can’t even consider.

By all accounts, Cunningham is an exceptional worker and a diligent student of the game, with the right support system around him. It’s a safe assumption that he’ll continue to refine these point-guard skills — the proof is in the pudding. He wasn’t a top-30 recruit until after his sophomore year at Arlington Bowie and finally climbed to the top of the rankings as a senior at Montverde.

The jump shot was an area of concern heading into Oklahoma State – Cade did more than enough to dispel that notion. While Cunningham’s on the older side (turns 20 in September) for a one-and-done guy, perhaps there’s still untapped potential athletically as well. Fully embracing the yoga routine will definitely help.

Putting it all together

Overall, I’d classify Cunningham as a very high-end prospect, who falls just short of being generational – a worthy No. 1 overall pick in most years. The experience at Stillwater — which forced him to explore his inner alpha — was invaluable to Cade, but I’m skeptical that he’ll succeed in the league playing this brand of ball.

I suspect that he’ll fall into more of the later (Middleton/Tatum) archetype – can initiate offense for stretches, though much better served with another co-star or as an essential cog in the machine. Combine that with plus off-ball gravity and team defense, and you have a surefire max contract guy – who consistently has a fringe all-NBA level of impact on playoff teams.

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Cunningham is going to be a very good NBA player. He’s as safe of a bet as it comes. The cold-blooded manner in which he took over in the final minutes of games (i.e. winning time) was striking. That said, I don’t believe Cade possesses upper-echelon, superstar upside — or is likely to reach that ceiling — which makes me lower on him than the general public.